By Vanessa Blakeslee
March 4, 2014
It has been a remarkable couple of years for short stories. And 2014 is off to an auspicious start with Molly Antopol’s accomplished collection, The UnAmericans and, in early March, Vanessa Blakeslee’s dark and probing debut collection, Train Shots.
As with so many recent books by first-time authors, they arrive seemingly out of nowhere with their artistic vision fully formed. Not surprisingly, these “overnight successes” have been polishing their craft for years, leaving bite marks in their pencils and typing the paint off their computer keyboards. Story by story, they have been publishing their work in literary journals both prestigious and obscure.
Blakeslee, originally from Pennsylvania but now based in central Florida, presents characters who are trying to figure out why their lives, and life in general, are hard to control. They are beaten down by bad breaks, selfish strangers, and the inevitable suffering that comes with being human. Yet they struggle to make sense of themselves and others, to find a purpose despite their loneliness, grief, broken heart, or lost opportunities. While Blakeslee’s stories are dark, they are not unremittingly so, and the reader will find it difficult not to root for these characters to sort things out, just as one does when one’s friends are having a rough time crossing from the past-haunted present to the waiting future.
Several of the stories take place in Florida, which Blakeslee obviously knows intimately, but two intriguing stories are set in Costa Rica. “Welcome, Lost Dogs,” perhaps the highlight of the collection, tells the story of an expatriate rancher whose older husband has returned to Florida to die of Parkinson’s. They had run an animal shelter but had sold out when she couldn’t bear putting the dogs in cages. After a year, she begins to save some of the local strays, building a large dog pen on the ranch, where they will have “room to run, to live.” When the dogs are stolen one night — something she finds inexplicable and infuriating — she is determined to find the thieves and reclaim “her” dogs. But she is not in the U.S., and the local customs do not favor her endeavor. Eventually, she decides to escape to her son’s finca (ranch estate) in an isolated corner of Nicaragua. They encounter poor agricultural workers stealing wood from a prime spot on his property, despite his previous attempts to allow them to take cut wood from another part of the finca. Together, these two experiences with life in a poor country teach her a valuable lesson about possession and loss.
The opening “Clock-In” features a monologue in which the narrator explains to a new waitress everything she will need to know, from the menu and customer service to dealing with the kitchen staff and dubious managers. “Uninvited Guests” explores the archaic situation when a single woman rents a carriage house apartment from an older minister. Set in the Florida hamlet of Eatonville, where Zora Neale Hurston was raised, this story is distinguished by a coiled tension as the renter and her intrusive and moralistic landlord play a game of cat and mouse over her visitors.
“Princess of Pop” puts readers inside the high pressure, paparazzi-chased life of a superstar singer. She has left her home in Beverly Hills to check into the hotel in Hollywood where Janis Joplin died of a heroin overdose in October 1970. She unplugs the phone, spills her bottles of Xanax and Ambien onto the bed, and takes a slug from a bottle of warm Grey Goose vodka.
At one point, having connected the phone, she takes a call from the front desk. “The front desk clerk told her the hotel was concerned with the media vans and trucks crowding the parking lot, and asked how long she planned to stay. ‘Why do I have to leave?’ she said. ‘You have my credit card, so swipe it.’
“‘It’s just that your presence is creating a disturbance for the other guests,’ the clerk said. ‘But of course, you may stay as long as you like.’
“‘I’ll be checking out shortly,’ she replied. Her voice was almost a whisper. She hung up. Your presence is creating a disturbance. She repeated that line to herself as she ate dry handfuls of Fruit Loops. Once again, she poured out the pills and divided them into two piles. Your presence is creating a disturbance.”
“Train Shots,” which concludes the collection, concerns P.T., a freight train engineer who is already reeling from a breakup with his longtime girlfriend and two train track suicides when a young girl in a dress, another suicide, is struck by his train despite his efforts to stop. The police cordon off the scene, CSX finds a replacement engineer to finish the route, and P.T. is put up in a posh hotel for the night until he can catch the train home in the morning.
“‘How nice of the company to look out for you after something so terrible,’ [the desk clerk] said. ‘Will you be getting some time off?’
“‘I just came off leave,’ he said. ‘Third person killed in four months. With lots of deer in between.'”
“She stared and slid the room key over.”
P.T. goes up to his room and decides to call Shelley, “who still didn’t feel like his ex.”
“‘Aren’t you supposed to be driving right now?’ she asked.
“‘I killed someone today,’ he said. ‘A woman. Really young. All dressed up and stretched out on the track.’
“‘Oh, geez,’ she said, sighing. ‘I’m sorry. But please stop saying that you killed someone. She killed herself. That’s all there is to it. For you it’s an accident.’
‘How is it an accident? I don’t believe in that word anymore. Not lately.’
He walks around the leafy business and entertainment district near the hotel and eventually finds himself in a dive bar near the tracks, crowded with college students. It is here that he learns about the restaurant’s trademark “train shots” of tequila. It takes a late night, drunken conversation with the police officer who worked the accident scene, in which he shares some hard-won wisdom about death, for P.T. to approach a possible resolution for his broken heart.
The other stories are equally involving, with believable characters, a strong sense of place, crisp dialogue, telling details, and a nicely controlled narrative drive. Each story bristles with energy and the potential for beauty or destruction, and only turning the pages will reveal which one. Blakeslee writes with a confidence and panache that will carry readers through this collection in a few gulps. When you’re finished reading The UnAmericans, move on to Train Shots; you’ll be encountering two of the best “new” American writers.